How Being Spectacularly Wrong Can Pay
Michael Fumento writes in the Washington Times, January
25, 1998, on the three-decade record of Doomsayer Paul Erlich's massively wrong
1968: "The battle to feed humanity is over. In
the 1970s the world will undergo famines--hundreds of millions of people [including
Americans] are going to starve to death."
In fact, food production is well ahead of population growth.
300,000 Americans per year are estimated to die prematurely from obesity.
1969: "Smog disasters in 1973 might kill 200,000
people in New York and Los Angeles."
The air in both cities is cleaner than at any time in this
last half century.
1969: "I would take even money that England will
not exist in the year 2,000."
With two years to go, the Brits seem to be getting along fine.
1973: "Before 1985, mankind will enter an age of
genuine scarcity . . . in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals
will be facing depletion."
In reality, practically all key minerals continue to decline
in price in real terms, indicating greater abundance and accessibility.
Yet such aptitude for getting things wrong apparently doesn't
impede receiving the MacArthur Foundation's "genius award," which
comes with a check for $345,000. You figure it out.
The simplemindedness of these warnings of diminishing resources
that the public is being constantly assailed with never ceases to amaze me.
One of the ones cited, for example, was copper. When copper, or anything else,
is extracted from the crust, refined, and fashioned into something useful, it
doesn't thereupon magically vanish off the planet and cease being available
for anything else. In fact, if demand and prices go up, it's a lot easier and
cheaper to convert readily available artifacts into whatever yields a better
return than having to dig more up out of the ground. Or in the case of copper,
use something else for transmitting information, such as fiber optics (which
are processed from sand), or the pure lumeniferous ether--by putting up satellites.
And the same applies even to something as apparently finite as gasoline. But
a gasoline molecule is just an arrangement of hydrogen and carbon atoms that
stores a lot of energy. When the gasoline is burned, the atoms aren't lost.
Given the appropriate know-how, they could, in principle, be reused to lock
up more energy. All you need is a suitable source--and the universe is practically
made of it! My guess is that we'll find it much cheaper and more convenient
to be making our own gasoline long before the last barrel of the original stuff
has been pumped out of the ground.
Those interested in a good book on the economics of why and
how things continue to get better, might try Population Matters by Julian
Simon, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, N.J., 1990.